I sometimes look back and try to make sense of my life, and one of my puzzles is trying to understand the tangled knot of my working career(s) or why it has taken me so long to find my vocation, and I believe I have one answer. I also can hardly complain about my strange career paths: I have had a rich and varied life.
When Roger and I took a trip to Italy in the mid-2000s, and I saw Florence again for the first time in 25 years, it hit me very powerfully that when I was 20, I fully believed I would bump into Florences around every corner, that the world was awash in such wonders. I took Florence for granted, and used it carelessly, though innocently. Returning in my 40s, I realized, in contrast, what a comparatively rare gift Florence is, how extraordinary it is, and how important it is to fully appreciate power of extraordinary places and people.
This reminded me of a very powerful memory I have of being on the Johns Hopkins campus for a graduate school interview. In the end, they offered only tuition and no stipend and no teaching assistantship as a first year student, and I accepted instead a full scholarship with stipend to attend George Washington University to study international relations (a mistake) and eventually ended up doing graduate work in literature at University of Maryland, which offered, financially, a full ride. I want to note for the record, too, that these opportunities were much more abundant and far easier to access 30 years ago than now. In any case, what I remember was an extraordinarily powerful desire, while walking across the Hopkins campus the day of the interview, amid all the brick buildings, to be on such a campus as Hopkins, to stay in such a setting. I was emotionally atremble with it, which is why I remember it so distinctly. I should have listened to what the Quakers call that Inner Guide, but at that time I knew nothing of Quakers. So I repressed the feeling as ridiculous, overwrought and sentimental. But I now realize, that just as I thought that Florences were everywhere, I thought that other careers, other jobs, other paths, could bring me the same glorious and intense joy as academic pursuits. I did find joy as a journalist. But other career choices made me miserable, as the world is in general a mix of darkness and light, and we are all formed differently. I only found that out through experience, just as I discovered there is not a Florence around every corner.
Isn't it more about class and privilege that I am able to wax eloquent over
the beauties of Florence? Didn't I simply go, like any tourist, and consume the Florence "experience?" Is this not effete, the stuff of parody? Don't I understand the oppression and injustice it took to build such a city?
Yes; yes and no; possibly; and yes.
As for my yes and no on tourism, when I visited the city at 17 and 20, it was about consuming an experience. I can remember wanting to race from the Botticellis to Michaelangelo's David to buying jewelry. Undoubtedly, I did some of that on my return trip in my 40s. But on the return trip, it was less about seeing and doing and more about simply being in the city. I can remember feeling content. Unlike your average consumer experience, it didn't leave me wanting more. Although we did do some touristy things, I was satisfied simply to sit on a stoop with Roger or walk around the streets, not needing to take from the city as much as appreciate it. Although no doubt built on human suffering, as all cities are, I understood it as a place than cannot simply be reproduced like the waterfront tourist mall, with its obligatory tourist shop, Starbucks and Cheesecake Factory.
What I underestimated when I was younger was that when you find joy and love and affinity, these are rare, not endlessly replicable, and you must cling to them with all your heart and soul and mind. You can't simply interchange them with something else, which is a truth about vocation it has taken me a long time to recognize. Not surprisingly, my happiest, ie most content, memories are of the simplest, most mundane things.